Fear on Flight 300: How the imams ter­ror­ized an air­liner

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Au­drey Hud­son

Mus­lim re­li­gious lead­ers re­moved from a Min­neapo­lis flight two weeks ago ex­hib­ited be­hav­ior as­so­ci­ated with a se­cu­rity probe by ter­ror­ists and were not merely en­gaged in prayers, ac­cord­ing to wit­nesses, po­lice re­ports and avi­a­tion se­cu­rity of­fi­cials.

Wit­nesses­saidthree­oftheimams were pray­ing loudly in the con­course and re­peat­edly shouted “Al­lah” when pas­sen­gers were called for board­ing US Air­ways Flight 300 to Phoenix.

“Iwas­sus­pi­cious­bythe­waythey were pray­ing very loud,” the gate agent told the Min­neapo­lis Po­lice De­part­ment.

Pas­sen­gers and flight at­ten­dants told law-en­force­ment of­fi­cials the imamss­witched­fromtheiras­signed seat­stoa­p­at­ter­nas­so­ci­at­ed­with­the Septem­ber 11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks and also found in probes of U.S. se­cu­rity since the at­tacks — two in the front row first-class, two in the mid­dle of the plane on the exit aisle and two in the rear of the cabin.

“That would alarm me,” said a fed­er­alair­mar­shal­whoasked­tore­main anony­mous. “They now con­trol all of the en­try and exit routes to the plane.”

A pilot from an­other air­line said: “That be­hav­ior has been iden­ti­fied as a ter­ror­ist probe in the air­line in­dus­try.”

But the imams who were es­corted off the flight in hand­cuffs say they were merely pray­ing be­fore the 6:30 p.m. flight on Nov. 20, and on Nov. 27 led a protest by prayer with other re­li­gious lead­ers at the air­line’s ticket counter at Ron­ald Rea­gan Wash­ing­ton Na­tional Air­port.

Mahdi Bray, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Mus­lim Amer­i­can So­ci­ety Free­dom Foun­da­tion, called re­mov­ing the imams an act of Is­lam­o­pho­bia and com­pared it to racism against blacks.

“It’s a shame that as an AfricanAmer­i­can and a Mus­lim I have the dou­ble whammy of hav­ing to worry about­driv­ing­while­blackand­fly­ing while Mus­lim,” Mr. Bray said.

The­p­rotester­sal­so­calle­donCongress to pass leg­is­la­tion to out­law pas­sen­ger pro­fil­ing.

Rep. Sheila Jack­son-Lee, Texas Demo­crat, said the Septem­ber 11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks “can­not be per­mit­ted to be used to jus­tify racial pro­fil­ing, ha­rass­ment and dis­crim­i­na­tion of Mus­lim and Arab Amer­i­cans.”

“Un­der­stand­ably, the imams felt pro­filed, hu­mil­i­ated, and dis­crim­i­nated against by their treat­ment,” she said.

Ac­cord­ing­tow­it­nesses,po­licere­ports and avi­a­tion se­cu­rity of­fi­cials, the imams dis­played other suspi- cious be­hav­ior.

Three of the men asked for seat­belt ex­ten­ders, al­though two flight at­ten­dants told po­lice the men were not over­sized. One flight at­ten­dant told­po­liceshe“foundthisun­set­tling, as crew knew about the six [pas­sen­gers] on board and where they were­sit­ting.”Ratherthanat­tachthe ex­ten­sions, the men placed the strap­sand­buck­leson­the­cab­in­floor, the flight at­ten­dant said.

Theimams­saidthey­w­erenot­dis­cussing pol­i­tics and only spoke in English, but wit­nesses told law en­force­ment that the men spoke in Ara­bic and English, crit­i­ciz­ing the war­inIraqandPres­i­den­tBush,and talk­ing about al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

Theimam­swho­claimedt­wofirst­classseats­saidtheirtick­etswere­up­graded. The gate agent told po­lice thatwhen­theimam­sasked­to­be­up­graded,they­w­ere­told­no­such­seats were avail­able. Nev­er­the­less, the two men were seated in first class when re­moved.

A flight at­ten­dant said one of the men­madet­wotrip­stothere­arofthe plane to talk to the imam dur­ing board­ing, and again when the flight was de­layed be­cause of their be­hav­ior. Avi­a­tion of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing air mar­shals and pi­lots, said th­ese ac­tions alone would not war­rant a sec­ond look, but the com­bi­na­tion is sus­pi­cious.

“That’s like shout­ing ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. You just can’t do that any­more,” said Robert Ma­cLean, a for­mer air mar­shal.

“They should have been de­nied board­ing and been in­ves­ti­gated,” Mr. Ma­cLean said. “It looks like the­yaretry­ing­tocre­atepublic­sym- pa­thy or maybe set­ting some­one up for a law­suit.”

Thep­i­lotwith­an­oth­erair­linewho talked to The Wash­ing­ton Times on con­di­tion of anonymity, said he would have made the same call as the US Air­ways pilot.

“If any group of pas­sen­gers is com­min­gling in the ter­mi­nal and didn’t sit in their as­signed seats or with each other, I would stop ev­ery­thin­gand­in­ves­ti­ga­te­un­tilth­ey­could pro­vide me with a rea­son they did not sit in their as­signed seats.”

One of the pas­sen­gers, Omar Shahin, told Newsweek the group did ev­ery­thing it could to avoid sus­pi­cion by wear­ing West­ern clothes, speak­ing English and book­ing seats so they were not to­gether. He said they con­ducted prayers qui­etly and sep­a­rately to avoid at­ten­tion.

The imams had at­tended a con­fer­ence spon­sored by the North Amer­i­canI­mamFed­er­a­tioninMin­neapo­lis and were re­turn­ing to Phoenix. Mr. Shahin, who is pres­i­dent of the fed­er­a­tion, said on his Web­sitethat­none­ofthep­as­sen­gers made­pro-Sad­damoranti-Amer­i­can state­ments.

The pilot said the air­lines are not “se­cretly prej­u­diced against any na­tion­al­ity, re­li­gion or cul­ture,” and that the only tar­get of pro­fil­ing is pas­sen­ger be­hav­ior.

“There are cer­tain be­hav­iors that raise the bar, and not sit­ting in your as­signed seat raises the bar sub­stan­tially,” the pilot said. “Es­pe­cially since we know that this be­hav­ior has been ev­i­dent in sus­pi­cious probes in the past.”

“Some­one at US Air­ways made a no­tably good de­ci­sion,” said a sec­ond pilot, who also does not work for US Air­ways.

A spokes­woman for US Air­ways de­clined to dis­cuss the in­ci­dent. Avi­a­tion se­cu­rity of­fi­cials said thou­sands of Mus­lims fly ev­ery day and con­duct prayers in air­ports in a quiet and private man­ner with­out cre­at­ing in­ci­dents.

Getty Images

Imam Omar Shahin (left), one of six pas­sen­gers re­moved from a Nov. 20 flight in Min­neapo­lis, handed his board­ing pass to a se­cu­rity agent at Ron­ald Rea­gan Wash­ing­ton Na­tional Air­port.

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